The NFL—their NFL—was falling apart. Three teams had just folded, and another, the Boston Braves, had lost a tidy $46,000 in the recently ended season. More important, their game had regressed into a shoving match that barely held the interest of the most ardent fan. Fully one fifth of 1932 games had ended in ties; the champion Bears had finished with a record of 7-1-6. The pro game was perilously close to confirming the critics' assertion that it was little more than a ponderous circus act—an apt charge, considering that the championship had just been contested indoors on a field fragrant with the elephant dung left by the arena's previous attraction.
The owners needed help that day in Pittsburgh, and it arrived in a full-length raccoon coat and a chauffeured limousine. "Gentlemen," announced a rasping voice, "it's time we recognized we're not only in the football business but in the entertainment business as well," according to minutes of the meeting. George Preston Marshall, known variously as George the Gorgeous, G. Presto and the Magnificent Marshall, was a West Virginia-born laundry magnate who dressed like a baron and operated with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. A 36-year-old failed actor who'd made a fortune expanding his father's business, Marshall had just become the sole owner of the Braves. He was a hard man to listen to and a difficult man to like. But he had ideas.
Football, Marshall believed, wasn't about the game, it was about the show. Specifically, it was about marching bands and fight songs; it was about celebrities and spangles and December visits from Santa Claus. Enlisting the support of Halas, Marshall set about liberating the game from its industrial-age straitjacket: splitting the league into two five-team divisions with a title playoff, loosening up the passing game, relaxing rules on substitutions.
But at bottom, Marshall and the rest of the owners knew that any show's success depended on casting. And if they truly wanted football to succeed, could they afford to risk further alienating its largely white audience by continuing to employ blacks, particularly in such dire economic times? Could they afford to risk "racial incidents"? And, to quote an oft-used argument, wasn't excluding black players really for their own protection?
Willfully ignored in all this was the fact that black players had played an important role in pro football's infancy. Charles (the Black Cyclone) Follis starred at running back for the 1906 Shelby Athletic Club, champions of Ohio. He had been followed by a parade of tough, resourceful black players—Doc Baker, Henry McDonald, Inky Williams, Paul Robeson, Duke Slater—13 of whom played in the NFL and many of whom, like Pollard, had been drawing cards in the league's touch-and-go early days.
Those players receded into the shadows as Marshall sketched out his vision. As in baseball, all the owners needed to do was to pretend black players had ceased to exist. Of course, there would be moments over the next decade when the owners would be forced to perform near-comedic contortions, such as when the Pittsburgh Steelers wrote letters beseeching Indiana star Archie Harris to come to their camp, then speedily disinvited him when they saw he was a few shades darker than they'd assumed. Or when All-America running backs went mysteriously undrafted. But the owners stuck to their story, denying the existence of a ban with straight faces. "Probably the game didn't have the appeal to black players at the time," Halas would lamely theorize in 1976.
Pollard had no doubt about the NFL owners' intentions. So in late August 1935, working with Harlem promoter Herschel (Rip) Day, he went about the business of assembling his own team. He searched the obvious sources—the teams of the Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Association—as well as the not-so-obvious ones, where he'd been tipped off to talent: the University of Iowa, Santa Clara Teachers' College of California and, in one case, the streets of New Haven, Conn. A roster began to take shape.
?Thomas (Tank) Conrad, a 6'3", 230-pound fullback from Morgan College, where he'd been nicknamed the Negro Nagurski.
?Freddy Rogers, a sticky-fingered end and alumnus of what sportswriters facetiously termed Pavement Prep in New Haven.
?Dave Myers, a former NFL running back with Stapleton (on Staten Island, N.Y.) and Brooklyn, who'd starred at NYU.